The Usability Genius of Quonset Huts

The Quonset Hut is a genius invention and shows what can be done when you combine a pressing need with good, sound engineering and documentation. You've probably seen them in movies about World War II or seen them used as garages on farms. The Quonset Hut was used with great effect during World War II for military housing, storage, and general use. It was the greatest assemble-yourself product long before IKEA came up with the idea. And it had better documentation.

A small group of soldiers with little building experience could assemble a Quonset Hut in a very short time and when required, take it apart and box it ready for assembly at the next location. It was a brilliant invention and many a soldier or airman thanked the designers for their relative comfort these huts afforded them.

What is a Quonset Hut?

A Quonset Hut is a lightweight structure made of a half-tube of corrugated iron sheeting assembled over a supporting lightweight structure of wood with plywood end walls. It can be assembled directly on the ground, on a concrete base or on piers depending on requirements. They were designed to be shipped in a set of boxes and assembled by anyone with or without skilled labour. It was designed by the George A. Fuller construction company and manufactured at Quonset Point at the Davisville Naval Construction Battalion Center in Davisville, Rhode Island. As I used to live not far from here, this location is very familiar to me.

The following picture shows a Royal Canadian Airforce Base near Skipton-on-Swale, UK. It shows a set of Quonset Huts and additional wooden structures. My dad often spoke of this place as it was where he was stationed while serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force, at least when his squadron was up there in York before being transferred to London and then Torquay.

Quonset huts set up at the RCAF airbase Skipton on Swale

Quonset huts set up at the RCAF airbase Skipton on Swale. Source (1)

They are a brilliant example of user-friendliness. After preparing a platform of concrete or sand, soldiers could set up these structures with minimum tools, such as wrenches and screw-drivers.

A Proposed Quonset Hut User Manual

What should be included in a document for a Quonset Hut? Well, here is what I would imagine might be a table of contents for the Assembly Instructions:

Step Procedure
1 Military statement
2 Introduction [purpose of this document]
3 Legal Disclaimer [use by military personal only]
4 Unpacking Parts Containers [instructions how to unpack the shipping container containing the Quonset Hut]
5 Parts List [check the parts list with the contents of the shipping container]
6 Tools Requirements [these are the tools you need to assemble the Hut]
7 Safety Issues [be aware of these dangers during assembling]
8 Site Preparation [general instructions about the site requirements, assuming this was done already]
9 Assembling the Support Structure [two or more soldiers space the individual units and bolt together in place]
10 Assembling End Walls [attach end walls to support structure]
10 Installing Windows and Doors [install windows and doors in end walls]
12 Attach Corrugated Sheeting on Support Structures [using bolts and nuts, attach sheeting to structure]
13 Insulating the Quonset Hut (optional) [Add insulation bats between supporting structure and on end walls]
14 Installing Interior Walls and Doors [if required, install interior dividing walls and doors]
15 Installing Electricity [if required, add electrical harness through support structure]
16 Installing Heating Equipment [if required, add heater or fans]
17 Testing the Structure for Soundness [perform a quality control but testing soundness of walls and roof]
18 Final Sign-Off for Occupancy [get sign-off from superior officers]
19 Providing Feedback to Base Operations [form for providing feedback to suppliers]
20 Disassembly [quick disassembly instructions]
21 Packing Shipping Containers [instructions to pack the parts in the containers for shipping]

These instructions would be provided with line drawings or photos to help in the assembly of the Quonset Hut.

As an aside, would these drawings and/or procedures be most appropriate? My guess is that, like IKEA instructions, well-drawn diagrams would do the trick! Besides, Military units from many countries would have to assemble these huts. Translating is expensive and time consuming. Simple headings could be quickly translated, or just left as they are and let the drawings fill in the gaps of understanding from non-English speakers. On the other hand, American, Canadian and British soldiers were assumed to know English. Other nations would do the translating as required.

The lesson of the Quonset Hut

So, the Quonset Hut is a great example of usability. It takes the needs of the user first and works around that. It is a very simple, yet extremely useful and versatile housing unit that with minimal documentation can be assembled in a very short time by just about anyone.

It provides a great lesson for today’s applications and products. Who are the end-users? How can documentation help them start using the product as quickly as possible? Provide a product that can be used by a wide range of users with diverse skill sets. The Quonset Hut shows us that necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Products that care about the user experience succeed. Even today, almost 80 years later, Quonset Huts are still providing excellent service. They survived because of good design and simplicity.

Being complicated is no badge of honour. It just means the designers didn’t care to take the effort to understand user needs. The manufacturer of the Quonset Huts at Quonset Point, Rhode Island focused entirely on getting it right. My dad can be thankful for that.

For more information

(1) Skipton on Swale RCAF Base history

(2) Quonset Hut Wikipedia topic